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Gehrke: Trump’s review of monuments a cynical charade to exploit Utah treasures

First Published      Last Updated May 22 2017 03:45 pm

Everyone, according to Gov. Gary Herbert, wants to protect the natural and historic treasures of Bears Ears.

Nonetheless, there he was, along with Utah's congressional delegation, grinning behind Donald Trump as the president signed an executive order, directing a review of Utah's newest national monument, as well as other monuments created under the Antiquities Act in the past two decades, including the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The motivation seems clear as the Utah delegation has been aggressively pushing Trump to rescind Bears Ears.

You have to hand it to these guys. They continually profess their love for Utah's wildlands while furiously working to gut any protections for them.




The word "disingenuous" doesn't do their actions justice.

You have Sen. Orrin Hatch trotting out a chart labeled "Executive Overreach At Its Worst," showing 290 million acres tied up by President Barack Obama's monument designations, while conveniently leaving out the 219 million acres of monuments created by President George W. Bush.

You get Herbert complaining that Obama created the monument without input from Utah elected officials, only to have a paper trail of hundreds of pages showing the extent of the administration's consultation.

It included an email from a senior Herbert staffer praising an Obama Interior Department official. He wrote: "I'm not kidding when I say you're an amazing example of a public servant," for the time she had spent working with Utah leaders.

Or you have Hatch on the Senate floor spouting the falsehood about how San Juan County's "schools have been strapped for cash ever since the Bears Ears Monument designation rendered these lands useless." Those schools spend about $12,500 per student, $5,000 more than the state average.

And the monument designation hasn't made even the tiniest dent in that.

Why?

Because despite all the Trumped up (pun intended) outrage, the reality is that the simple act of designating a national monument has changed almost nothing on the ground in Bears Ears.

Oil and gas drilling — even though there has been none really to speak of for decades — can continue on existing leases; existing roads remain open; and existing mining claims are valid, although the boundaries of the monument were carefully drawn to exclude some uranium deposits.

Because, you know, consideration for the locals.

Essentially, it's status quo on the ground while the Forest Service and Interior Department — which, if you have forgotten, are run by Trump appointees — design a management plan that will govern the new monument.

It took more than three years to prepare the management plan for the Grand Staircase, plenty of time, one would think, for Congress to act.

Which brings us to Rep. Rob Bishop and the Public Lands Initiative (PLI). This legislation has been years in the making. According to the email record, the White House, out of deference to the Utah delegation, held off on designating Bears Ears to give Bishop & Co. a chance to get the PLI through Congress.

The White House patterned the Bears Ears footprint after the conservation area proposed in the PLI, only about 50,000 acres smaller.

But here's the thing: There is one surefire way to rescind a national monument, and it's not to have the new president try to undo the declaration. That's something that has never been done, is almost certainly unconstitutional and would absolutely be tied up in court for years.

The solution is for Congress to pass the PLI. And lawmakers likely have at least three years to get it done while the monument-management plan is being prepared.

If Bishop can't get his supposedly consensus bill through in three years, you have either a lousy bill or a lousy congressman.

It looks, however, like Trump, Hatch and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have something else in mind. Zinke says he'll be in Utah in a few weeks to visit southern Utah, and there will be recommendations, not just on Bears Ears but on potential changes to Grand Staircase.

Maybe they'll get it right. Maybe they'll leave the monument alone and let Congress do what Congress is supposed to do.

Maybe they'll surprise us, and Trump, who said of Bears Ears, "I hear it's beautiful," will figure out a way to build his next hotel in the monument and make it the Western White House.

Don't count on it.

This whole exercise looks to be just as cynical and politically motivated as the rhetoric that has surrounded the Bears Ears opposition. It's nothing more than a charade to manufacture an excuse to undo one of Obama's final actions, and to strip away the limited measures preserving a landscape that, as the governor said, we all want protected.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke

 

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